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ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
LEARNING TO WRITE
[From "A College Magazine," in Memories and Portraits, 1887. Thistle Edition, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. For the Life of Stevenson, see post, p. 623.]
All through my boyhood and youth, I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy on my own private end, which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words; when I sat by the roadside, I would either read, or a pencil and a penny versionbook would be in my hand, to note down the features of the scene or commemorate some halting stanzas. Thus I lived with words. And what I thus wrote was for no ulterior use, it was written consciously for practice. It was not so much that I wished to be an author (though I wished that too) as that I had vowed that I would learn to write. That was a proficiency that tempted me; and I practised to acquire it, as men learn to whittle, in a wager with myself. Description was the principal field of my exercise; for to any one with senses there is always something worth describing, and town and country are but one continuous subject. But I worked in other ways also; often accompanied my walks with dramatic dialogues, in which I played many parts; and often exercised myself in writing down conversations from memory.
This was all excellent, no doubt; so were the diaries I sometimes tried to keep, but always and very speedily discarded, finding them a school of posturing and melancholy self-deception. And yet this was not the most efficient part of my training. Good though it was, it only taught me (so far as I have learned them at all) the lower and less intellectual elements of the art, the choice of the essential note and the right word: things that to a happier constitution had perhaps come by nature. And regarded as training, it had one grave defect; for it set me no standard of achievement. So that there was perhaps more profit, as there was certainly more effort, in my secret labours at home. Whenever I read a book or a
passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and coordination of parts. I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to Obermann. I remember one of these monkey tricks, which was called The Vanity of Morals: it was to have had a second part, The Vanity of Knowledge; and as I had neither morality nor scholarship, the names were apt; but the second part was never attempted, and the first part was written (which is my reason for recalling it, ghostlike, from its ashes) no less than three times: first in the manner of Hazlitt, second in the manner of Ruskin, who had cast on me a passing spell, and third, in a laborious pasticcio of Sir Thomas Browne. So with my other works: Cain, an epic, was (save the mark!) an imitation of Sordello: Robin Hood, a tale in verse, took an eclectic middle course among the fields of Keats, Chaucer, and Morris: in Monmouth, a tragedy, I reclined on the bosom of Mr. Swinburne; in my innumerable gouty-footed lyrics, I followed many masters; in the first draft of The King's Pardon, a tragedy, I was on the trail of no lesser man than John Webster; in the second draft of the same piece, with staggering versatility, I had shifted my allegiance to Congreve, and of course conceived my fable in a less serious vein - for it was not Congreve's verse, it was his exquisite prose, that I admired and sought to copy. Even at the age of thirteen I had tried to do justice to the inhabitants of the famous city of Peebles in the style of the Book of Snobs. So I might go on for ever, through all my abortive novels, and down to my later plays, of which I think more tenderly, for they were not only conceived at first under the bracing influence of old Dumas, but have met with resurrections: one, strangely bettered by another hand, came on the stage itself and was played by bodily actors; the other, originally known as Semiramis: a Tragedy, I have observed on bookstalls under the alias of Prince Otto. But enough
has been said to show by what arts of impersonation, and in what purely ventriloquial efforts I first saw my words on paper.
That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write; whether I have profited or not, that is the way. It was so Keats learned, and there was never a finer temperament for literature than Keats's; it was so if we could trace it out, that all men have learned; and that is why a revival of letters is always accompanied or heralded by a cast back, to earlier and fresher models. Perhaps I hear someone cry out: But this is not the way to be original! It is not; nor is there any way but to be born so. Nor yet, if you are born original, is there anything in this training that shall clip the wings of your originality. There can be none more original than Montaigne, neither could any be more unlike Cicero; yet no craftsman can fail to see how much the one must have tried in his time to imitate the other. Burns is the very type of a prime force in letters: he was of all men the most imitative. Shakespeare himself, the imperial, proceeds directly from a school. It is only from a school that we can expect to have good writers; it is almost invariably from a school that great writers, these lawless exceptions, issue. Nor is there anything
here that should astonish the considerate. Before he can tell what cadences he truly prefers, the student should have tried all that are possible; before he can choose and preserve a fitting key of words, he should long have practised the literary scales; and it is only after years of such gymnastic that he can sit down at last, legions of words swarming to his call, dozens of turns of phrase simultaneously bidding for his choice, and he himself knowing what he wants to do and (within the narrow limit of a man's ability) able to do it.
And it is the great point of these imitations that there still shines beyond the student's reach his inimitable model. Let him try as he please, he is still sure of failure; and it is a very old and a very true saying that failure is the only highroad to success. I must have had some disposition to learn; for I clear-sightedly condemned my own performances. I liked doing them indeed; but when they were done, I could see they were rubbish. In consequence, I rarely showed them even to my friends; and such friends as I chose to be my confidants I must have chosen well, for they had the friendliness to be quite plain with me. "Padding," said one. Another wrote:
"I cannot understand why you do lyrics so badly.' "No more could I! Thrice I put myself in the way of a more authoritative rebuff, by sending a paper to a magazine. These were returned; and I was not surprised nor even pained. If they had not been looked at, as (like all amateurs) I suspected was the case, there was no good in repeating the experiment; if they had been looked at-well, then I had not yet learned to write, and I must keep on learning and living. Lastly, I had a piece of good fortune which is the occasion of this paper, and by which I was able to see my literature in print, and to measure experimentally how far I stood from the favour of the public.
THE LIFE OF DR. ROBERT SANDERSON
[First published in 1678. Walton's Lives, John Major, London, 1825.
WALTON, IZAAK (1593-1683), author of 'The Compleat Angler'; born in Stafford; apprentice to a London ironmonger; in business for himself in London, 1614; freeman of the Ironmongers' Company, 1618; wrote verses before 1619; contributed copies of verses to books by his friends, 1638-61; favoured the royalists, 1642; married his second wife, 1646; lived with Bishop George Morley at Farnham, 1662-78; lived at Winchester with his son-in-law, Dr. William Hawkins, canon of Winchester, 1678-83; published his biographies of Dr. John Donne, 1640, of Sir Henry Wotton, 1651, of Richard Hooker, 1665, of George Herbert, 1670, and of Bishop Robert Sanderson, 1678; 'The Compleat Angler' first appeared in 1653, and the second edition in 1655. Cotton wrote his dialogue between 'Piscator' and 'Viator' in 1676, and it was published as a second part in the 'Compleat Angler,' 5th ed., 1676. — Index and Epitome of D. N. B.
"It is very delightful, and though more rambling than Plutarch, comes nearer to him than any other life-writing I can think of. Indeed, I shall be inclined to say that Walton had a genius for rambling rather than that it was his foible. The comfortable feeling he gives us that we have a definite purpose, mitigated with the license to forget it at the first temptation and take it up again as if nothing had happened, thus satisfying at once the conscientious and the natural man, is one of Walton's most prevailing charms.
"I have hesitated to say that Walton had style, because, though that quality, the handmaid of talent and the helpmeet of genius, have left the unobtrusive traces of its deft hand in certain choicer parts of Walton's writing, his guest-chambers as it were, yet it does by no means pervade and regulate the whole. For in a book we feel the influence of style everywhere, though we never catch it at its work, as in a house we divine the
neat-handed ministry of woman. Walton too often leaves his sentences in a clutter. But there are other qualities which, if they do not satisfy like style, are yet even more agreeable, draw us nearer to an author, and make us happier in him. Why try to discover what the charm of a book is, if only it charm? If I must seek a word that more than any other explains the pleasure which Walton's way of writing gives us, I should say it was its innocency. It refreshes like the society of children. I do not know whether he had humor, but there are passages that suggest it, as where, after quoting Montaigne's delightful description of how he played with his cat, he goes on: 'Thus freely speaks Montaigne concerning cats,' as if he had taken an undue liberty with them; or where he makes a meteorologist of the crab, that 'at a certain age gets into a dead fish's shell, and like a hermit dwells there alone studying the wind and weather;' or where he tells us of the palmer-worm, that 'he will boldly and disorderly wander up and down, and not endure to be kept to a diet or fixed to a particular place.' And what he says of Sanderson that 'he did put on some faint purposes to marry' would have arrided Lamb. These, if he meant to be droll, have that seeming inadvertence which gives its highest zest to humor and makes the eye twinkle with furtive connivance. Walton's weaknesses, too, must be reckoned among his other attractions. He praises a meditative life, and with evident sincerity; but we feel that he liked nothing so well as good talk. His credulity leaves front and back door invitingly open. For this I rather praise than censure him, since it brought him the chance of a miracle at any odd moment, and this complacency of belief was but a lower form of the same quality of mind that in more serious questions gave him his equanimity of faith. And how persuasively beautiful that equanimity is!"- JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL, "Walton," 1889, in Latest Literary Essays and Addresses, pp. 76, 90-91. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston.]
Doctor Robert Sanderson, the late learned Bishop of Lincoln, whose life I intend to write with all truth and equal plainness, was born the nineteenth day of September in the year of our Redemption 1587. The place of his birth was Rotherham1 in the county of York; a town of good note, and the more for that Thomas Rotherham, sometime archbishop of that see, was born in it; a man whose great wisdom, and bounty, and sanctity of life have made it the more memorable: as indeed it ought also to be, for being the birthplace of our Robert Sanderson. And the reader will be of my belief, if this humble relation of his life can hold any proportion with his great piety, his useful learning, and his many other extraordinary endowments.
He was the second and youngest son of Robert Sanderson, of Gilthwaite Hall, in the said Parish and County, Esq., by Elizabeth, one of the daughters of Richard Carr, of Butterthwaite
1 This is a mistake; Bishop Sanderson was born at Sheffield.